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Close to the heart of Borneo Shared by 2 TOOVERS

kapit , N 1°36'-W 113°44'
August, 1992
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I'm not an armchair traveller. However, I like reading travel books.

One of the funniest travel books I've read is 'Into the heart of Borneo' by Redmond O'Hanlon. Even the book review (time magazine) is funny:

'Within this intrepid travelogue lies the soul of Monty Python. The setting is the third largest island in the world, a fetid, fiercely overgrown jungle seething with carnivorous fauna and suspicious tribes. The protagonists are two British greenhorns with minimal survival skills. Poet James Fenton, 35, likes to spend his spare time reading the poems of Swift in a canoe. Narrator Redmond O'Hanlon, 37, is a literary naturalist who admits before embarking on the 1983 expedition, 'The nearest I had ever come to a tropical rain-forest, after all, was in the Bodleian Library.'

Actually, he edges a bit closer when he consults some old Borneo hands. 'You'll find the high spot of your day,' advises one, 'is cleaning your teeth. The only bit of you you can keep clean. Don't shave in the jungle, because the slightest nick turns septic at once . . . You'll think it's the end of the world. You can't breathe. You can't move.' Wear long pants, he continues. 'You won't want to nancy about in shorts once the first leech has had a go at you, believe me.' Another tells him, 'Take lots of postcards of the Queen, preferably on horseback, and showing all four legs, because they think she's all of a piece.' And a policeman at Singapore airport warns: 'They eat people in there! They're cannibals! Blowpipes! Phut. Phut. You die. No noise. Very better than a gun.' …
The review concludes with 'Into the Heart of Borneo makes the island more surreal than enticing'

The book did not have that effect on me. Moreover, It made me want to go there and experience this jungle, these people, their way of life. 9 years after O'Hanlon made this trip, I happened to be in Malaysia and had the opportunity to spend a month in Sarawak.

It was never my intention to follow O'Hanlon's book and redo his trip. However, once we were there and after we travelled around (everything by boat) for a bit ,we got more and more fascinated. We had visited a longhouse within easy reach and although it gave us a rough idea of life in a longhouse, it felt like 'suburbia' . For the real thing, the 'inner jungle' life, we had to go further. There where no regular boat would go. We decided to try and go up the Baleh river, as far as possible. The book started to become reality.

We went to Kapit and asked around. We went everywhere from museum, to Shell station, from shops to government buildings (how can I know? I've never been there) until at the end of the day, we knew that a trip up the river could be arranged but was not within our budget. That night, as by some strange coincidence, we met 4 Italians who talked about going up the Baleh river for several days. They had no objection to us joining them. We split the cost of the boat, the guide (mr. Donald), the boatman (Mandau), the fuel and the food we would need for a 5-day trip in the direction of the heart of Borneo.

Two hours by boat from Kapit, we visited a beautiful longhouse, where we spent the night exchanging stories and questions. After two nights in two different longhouses, most of the Italians were ill and decided they were not up to it. They took the first boat back to Kapit.
Mandau drove the boat 8 hours further along the river to a hut where we spent a day and 2 nights. We caught fish, looked for edible ferns, walked through the jungle and listened to exotic birds and Donald’s stories. He had crossed the Indonesian border further up the river and had visited Ukit and Penan tribes: O’ Hanlon’s trip.

There, in this hut, somewhere along the Baleh river, we decided to come back next summer, with a few friends and a lot of money and we would go right into the heart of Borneo…


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Added on:
09 April 2007
travel book Sarawak Karin
Travel Nature
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